Amazon's new ranking system

Last weekend Amazon changed (updated?) the way it ranks reviewers on its site. On the whole, it seems fine to me. For one thing, it's their site and they can rank any way they see fit.

The biggest change is that if someone consistently gives a reviewer positive votes, they're listed as a "fan" and their votes don't count. On the one hand that seems fair: the end of block voting. On the other hand: it assumes that all "fans" aren't rating a review on content but on their relationship with the reviewer. Then there is the opposite of fans, what someone on the Vine Forums referred to as a "nemesis". And what about the yahoos who vote based on whether they agree with the opinions expressed?

There's probably no easy way to manage this.

Damn Fool Business in the Balkans

For someone who's quite interested in the Balkans, I've started but failed to finish a distressing number of books on the topic: Misha Glenny's 700 pager, a two-volume history of Serbia, a book on Greece's wars of independence, etc. I though the problem is that the topic is too large for one book until I found Mark Mazower's The Balkans: A Concise History. In less than 250 pages Mazower covers not just the basics but the major issues as well. He also manages to upend a few long-held but factually unsupported beliefs.

The outline is simple, first cover the land and the people, then life under the Ottoman Empire, then the struggles for "independence" (definitely a relative term in this instance) and finally the events of the 20th century. By the end I understood just how empty the concept of nationalism truly was in the Balkans in the 19th century, the roles of the Greek Orthodox Churches, the Austrian Empire and Russia, and the allure that fascism held for these newly emergent nations in the 1930s. That's a lot for 250 pages. That Mazower also manages to take on the myths of the "violent" Balkans and how swell it was to be a non-Muslim in the Ottoman Empire is truly impressive.

(That last one has always amazed me. It's one thing to rightly point out the relatively better treatment the Ottoman Empire afforded to non-Muslims compared to non-Christians during specific periods of history but the sugar-coating that's gone on in the last 10 or so years is just ... lame, not to mention uninformed. It requires total ignorance of the whole picture and takes portions of society out of context thus draining them of meaning. I really hate "histories" that insist on having "heroes" and "villains", no matter who's occupying either category it's bad scholarship. /rant mode off)

This one's a winner and I'm definitely going back for more Modern Library Chronicles and more about the Balkans.

Contourless Visions

Patty Hearst was almost captured in my home town. Ok, not quite - there were just reported sightings of her there but that was the most interesting thing that had happened there in a decade. Maybe that's why the Symbionese Liberation Army fascinated me as a child. For one thing, the Patty Hearst kidnapping story was wall-to-wall for weeks. Then Patty showed up at a bank robbery and in those days before the Stockholm Syndrome it was assumed that the heiress had had her consciousness raised by her kidnappers. I wouldn't have voiced my opinion exactly this way since I wasn't even 10 years old but, seriously, what a crock of shit. Did anyone really think that after Patty was dragged screaming from her home the kidnappers treated her to a crash course in Trotsky?

As usual, I digress, because there were many things about the SLA that intrigued. What, for example, is a Symbion and why did it need liberating? Is it any wonder that I had the vague idea this was all connected to the Lebanese civil war? In news reports the SLA was talked about in the same breath as the Baader-Meinhof gang. If the SLA was vague, the Baader-Meinhof gang was practically a ghost. By the time I became aware of them there wasn't a Baader or a Meinhof on the scene which only added to the confusion. Sometimes they were referred to as the Red Army Faction making it easy to confuse them with the Red Brigade. A few years later members of the Weather Underground starting turning themselves into the police after years, well, underground. It seemed like the Seventies were crawling with middle class white kids sashaying around throwing bombs. Why they were throwing bombs had something to do, vaguely again, with the Vietnam war.

I couldn't make sense of it then and for years later I couldn't find any books (in those pre Web days) to explain even the basics let alone attempt to answer any of the larger questions. Finally some thoughtful research is being applied to this era, starting with the incredible documentary Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst. Then there was Susan Braudy's slightly less scholarly but oh-so-much fun Family Circle about Kathy Boudin of Weather Underground Fame. Both are entertaining and illuminating of the individuals involved. What's been missing for me is a deeper understanding of what the "radicals" in question where trying to achieve. That's where Bringing the War Home comes in.

It's hard to overstate Jeremy Varon's accomplishment. He tackles the Baader-Meinhof Gang (Red Army Faction or RAF) and the Weather Underground - two groups as focused on their own myth-making as on the "change" they sought to affect - and rescues them from being either "left wing nuts" or "revolutionary heroes". He makes a clear case for what inspired both groups. For the RAF Germany's Nazi past seemed unexorcised, former Nazis were in positions of power in government and business. Worse, for the RAF, some of the mindset that enabled the Nazis to rise to power remained in place: a desire for order over law, conformity at any cost over dissent, etc. Socialism, even communism, still seemed a better venue for achieving true equality over what they perceived as the failed promises of Western Democracy. For the Weathermen it was the blatant inequality that plagued Black Americans on every level that inspired them. For both groups, the Vietnam War was both a cause and an inspiration. If the people of a small Third World Country could stand up to (and even defeat) a super power in the name of their own liberation, surely a revolutionary vanguard in Germany or the US could do the same. That was their reasoning, at least.

Varon goes deeper still in the both the workings of each group and their ideology. His analysis of their writings and intra-group debates is thoughtful and thought-inspiring. While some may think Varon gives each group a little too much credit for their ideological writings, I'd argue that Varon exposes the weaknesses (and a few of the strengths) in each. The Weather Underground's writings can look like a Mad Magazine parody of Trotsky or Lenin's works one minute, then coolly rational when refusing to back down on the necessity of American Workers to give up some of their benefits in order for workers around the world to be at parity. The RAF, by contrast, has far fewer rational moments. A truly shattering quote from Ulrike Meinhof's mother sums up the flaw in both groups: "social-ethical-utopian ecstasy, a contourless vision of the Coming Time." Power to the people, death to the fascist insect they preys upon the people, and kill the pigs. They believed, they KNEW, things had to change, but then what? What aside from not being what it was before was society going to become?

The Weather Underground and the RAF came to embody a radical chic in the early 1970s that, along with the fear they inspired, was entirely out of proportion to their numbers, their followers or even their acts. They spent more time on their communiques then on educating the oppressed about their status or on anything else for that matter. The revolution had better be televised or there wasn't much chance of anybody knowing these groups existed. But of course they were made for tv: articulate, attractive middle-class young people spouting moral outrage. (See the documentary for a few unintentionally hilarious clips of young radicals on tv.) You can't help but think that Lenin or Trotsky would have joined the Black Panthers in their disdain of both groups.

So while I can't say that Varon made me respect either the Weather Underground or the RAF, he did something far more important. His book has helped me to understand why they came to be in the first place and rescued their goals - vague though they sometimes were - from the fog of myth.